Practicing What I Teach

Everyday I wake up I get up to go to work I feel a sense of gratitude. Gratitude because my job involves me using my education and skills to help kids and families in my community, and gratitude because I am PASSIONATE about kids, counseling and general wellness. I try to be the person I needed when I was a child and teenager. I try to be the person I wish other counselors would have been to my caregivers, if we ever went the family counseling route when struggling through our family dysfunction. Each present day is another opportunity to pour education, skill building and empathy into families that need it.

But … all of it is separate; separate both from my life and from my day to day experiences with kids in my family. I keep the “job box” and the “personal life” box very separate. Up until last month, the interventions I recommend and the skills I try to teach parents to build up in their kids were all based on … well, theory, experience and positive intentions. And now I am currently doing my best to embody these teachings with a child in my own home.

On May 21st of this year I became the legal guardian to my younger, 10 year old half-brother. Not me on my own, but my husband and older brother and as well. In a moment’s notice we went from pursuing our own individual personal and professional  goals as young adults, to casting those aside to ensure our little brother gets a chance to chase after his own one day. The little one we now care for is worth bragging about. He’s the cutest, sweetest, most adventurous little boy I get to spend time with every day. When things go well in our home (“well” meaning: he gets screen time when he wants and isn’t asked to get off, going to bed later than what’s best for him, having to eat at least 3 asparagus sticks etc.) he can easily make any hardened heart melt with his helpfulness, his kind words and his love of hugs. 

When things get tough (“tough” meaning: he’s asked to finish his reading homework, he has to drink water instead of soda, he’s asked to take space because he needs it) he acts out in ways that are really challenging to respond to. He can be angry and scream, name call and say really hurtful things. He can threaten to runaway, hurt himself or cause his own death. He can look directly into my eyes and without blinking tell lies about things that are seemingly easy, consequence-free truths. He can take things without asking and hide them when asked if he knows of their whereabouts. He can ball his fists and raise them as if he’s going to hit me. There is so much underneath all of the changing and turbulent behaviors we see day to day. 

He’s been traumatized, abandoned off and on due to parental incarceration, attended a different elementary school almost every year he’s been enrolled, been without an IEP (individualized education plan) despite having learning difficulties, lived in a few different cities, tried to make friends for the first time over and over again. He hasn’t had it easy, which makes sense that he is NOT an easy child to parent. It’s something I have to remind myself over and over again - his behaviors are a message that he feels something difficult inside. He doesn’t know how to express it in a healthy way. It’s my job to teach him. But it’s hard. 

There are times I fall back into the way I was parented: “Just go to your room!” or “do it because I told you to” have flown from my lips in an elevated tone more than once. Trying to put communication and discipline strategies in place that are easier to envision than actually practice takes a higher level of determination that I theorized. Taking space for myself when I feel upset before raising my voice is harder than I thought. It’s given me a renewed sense of appreciation for each and every parent I have asked to do this. I can now say “try this, but be gentle with yourself if it’s not perfect.” Because it won’t be perfect.

Parenting a child that requires unconventional parenting methods in order to be successful is not for the faint of spirit. We must be tireless in our efforts to connect, to teach, to encourage and to build up. To do this, we must be connected, well taught, encouraged and built up ourselves and so must our parenting partners be. We can not give our kids the things we do not have.

So a word of encouragement: If you’re parenting a child that challenges you, take heart. You’re not alone. Other parents understand. You are worthy, you are sufficient, you are good enough. Repeat as often as needed and start each day with a new sense of hope that things will change with consistency and time. 


One Overwhelmed but Blessed Caregiver to Another

Kavanaugh and the Lessons Our Kids Can Learn From It.

I like many other Americans have been captivated by the Kavanaugh appointment hearing in the last 6 weeks or so. If you’re unsure of what I am referring to typing in “Kavanaugh” to any search engine will likely produce an outpouring of articles, some created in the spirit of authentic journalism, others from a radical right or left-wing political viewpoint and far too many from a position of perceived hatred for one “side” or the other.

The hashtag #IBelieveHer and #IBelieveHim have pressed and depressed out the possibility of a grey area, grey area meaning the need for critical thinking, wondering, self-reflection and learning. Because this topic (of sexual assault, consent for sexual experiences) has become a metaphorical black and white issue; either you unequivocally believe him or unequivocally believe her, the conversation has stopped entirely. As any counselor might tell you, not talking about something (whether emotions, situations or trauma) doesn’t mean those things no longer exist - they still have impact as will the Kavanaugh hearing on our nation and the kids we bring up. The challenge now stands to understand the narrative about consent and sexual assault and learn how to actively teach younger people about it.

If you choose to engage in this conversation with your children you may benefit from sticking to these central themes while also remaining true to your family values and culture. As with any planned conversation with a child or teen, remember that how you feel about the topic and how you feel as the time to have the conversation approaches is critically important. The energy we bring to a conversation with another impacts the way they receive or respond to the content of the conversation. If you want your child to respond openly, ask yourself ‘do I feel open about this issue? Am I feeling comfortable, as I want my child to feel while talking about this?’ If you aren’t in a space where you feel generally neutral or not totally emotionally charged take time and space for yourself. Counterintuitive to messages we get about “good parenting” this is the first step toward becoming a more aware and present parent.

Conversational themes:

  1. Our bodies belong to us: this is a great place to start because it is applicable to all children regardless of sex/gender. The primary lesson we can learn from the Kavanaugh hearing is that kids need to and have the right to feel connected to their bodies and safe enough to verbalize when they do or do not want to be touched. The overall skills this concept develops are self-awareness, assertiveness, refusal skills, boundary setting, attachment.

  2. Others bodies belong to them: In reverse, we can teach our children that just as our bodies belong to us that also means that others bodies belong to them. This requires our kids to learn to listen to the words and body language of others. I tend to advocate for parents to relate content to their children first so they can understand because kids are egocentric creatures who see things from their point of view (normal, often highly frustrating). Once they can apply the material appropriately to themselves then they be able to understand how it applies to their peers. Skills this concept develops include active listening, respect of others boundaries, question asking (consent)

  3. If they are assaulted you will believe them: Despite fears that an alleged perpetrator will be falsely accused there is overwhelming evidence that victims & survivors won’t be believed. The testimony of Dr. Ford required many survivors to revisit their past experiences, often characterized by someone at some point who implied or outright accused them of dishonesty. It also called all of us to make a judgment about her truthfulness. Reassure your youth that if they are ever sexually assaulted and decide to tell you that you will believe them entirely. Being told by your youth about their assault is to be considered an honor, if you think about how private and traumatic this experience truly is.  

Starting with those very basic concepts it’s shocking how much youth already know and have experienced sexual assault, whether personally or through witness of a loved one. Approaching challenging topics such as this only becomes harder when approached out of fear and not love. When it comes to the youth in our life we show love by preparing them as best we can for the obstacles all humans face in late adolescence and early adulthood. And though we hope our youth never struggle with being assaulted, being guilty of assault or falsely accused of assault their awareness of such issues is the first step in supporting their success in future, loving relationships.

With Gratitude,